From the minute the Republican Party won back the majority within the House of Representatives in November 2022, Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) knew he would have his hands full should he be voted as the 55th Speaker of the House. The GOP won 222 seats, a razor-thin majority that left him only five votes to spare before he would need to turn to Democrats to pass any legislation out of the chamber. Plus, McCarthy was facing a Democratic-controlled Senate and White House, neither of whom were in a rush to make McCarthy’s job easier.
As tough as those obstacles have proven to be in eight months as Speaker, McCarthy’s biggest headaches have come from his own right flank—a group of hardline Republicans who have proven more than willing to tank their own party’s agenda no matter the political costs. This dynamic was evident in January when it took 15 very public ballots for McCarthy to win the Speaker’s gavel. It was also a primary reason why the House struggled until the last moment to raise the federal debt ceiling. And now, as time is running out to avoid a government shutdown, the same group of holdouts have put the Speaker in a truly impossible position.
When it comes to negotiating a spending bill, McCarthy’s predicament can best be described as damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. Actually, it may be even worse than that. If the Speaker could somehow author a spending bill acceptable to the ultra-conservatives in his conference, he knows that the House-passed bill is dead on arrival in the Senate, and a shutdown is all but certain.
Or, at least in theory, McCarthy could work with House Democrats to keep the government lights on for at least a few months with a continuing resolution. But, Democrats–to say nothing of the Senate and White House–would likely want to trade Democratic votes for their preferred policies, such as funding for the Ukraine war, domestic disaster relief funds, or even putting a halt to the Biden impeachment inquiry. These provisions, as well as the Speaker working with Democrats at all, however, are red lines for the House GOP holdouts. Should he do either, they’ve threatened to try and oust McCarthy as Speaker through a motion to vacate.
And if that doesn’t sound like a tough enough spot for McCarthy to navigate, here’s where it gets even more unworkable: the group of hardline conservatives don’t seem open to a deal no matter what’s in it. Or, at the very least, not enough of them agree on what an acceptable agreement bill would include.
Some want cuts to social programs like Social Security and Medicaid (which would break the agreement McCarthy made with President Biden in a deal to raise the debt limit). Others demand floor votes on non-spending issues like border security and congressional term limits. Still others insist that the process for how a spending bill is considered is a deal breaker. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), for example, threatened that a stopgap continuing resolution–quickly becoming the only way to avert a shutdown–would be an “automatic trigger” for a motion to vacate. It’s not at all clear who wants what or how much.
And that’s the key point: it increasingly appears that no matter what the Speaker offers, it won’t be enough to satisfy the hardliners. Their power and their leverage stem from their unwillingness to compromise. They know full well that the Speaker doesn’t have enough Republican votes without theirs to pass legislation out of the chamber. And because he’s responsible for governing in a way that they aren’t, they know the Speaker needs them more than they need him. To them, the dysfunction seems to be the goal.
What’s more, the ultra-conservatives have built a national brand because of their tactics. Precisely because of their intransigence, they have garnered unprecedented media (and fundraising) attention relative to their very average institutional positions. Voters across the country know their name and applaud them for standing up for their principals, especially because their fight is with fellow Republicans.
This reality has created a perverse incentive structure for a big enough House faction: obstruct and receive more attention and leverage to extract more concessions, or compromise and risk becoming just another member of Congress. For them, it’s an easy choice.
For Speaker McCarthy, though, it makes a very hard job even more unworkable.
Casey Burgat is the director of the Legislative Affairs program at the Graduate School of Political Management. Prior to joining GSPM, Dr. Burgat was a Senior Governance Fellow at the R Street Institute where his research focused on issues of congressional capacity and reform. In this role, Casey wrote regularly for both scholarly and journalistic publications, including CNN, the Washington Post, and Politico, and appeared on a variety of television and radio outlets. Dr. Burgat coauthored Congress Explained: Representation and Lawmaking in the First Branch, a textbook on all things Congress, published by the Sage/CQ Press in the fall of 2022.
Previously, Casey worked at the Congressional Research Service, where he served in the Executive Branch Operations and the Congress & Judiciary sections. There, he was responsible for responding to congressional requests about federal rulemaking, issues of congressional reform, the president’s role in federal budgeting, federal advisory committees, and congressional staffing.
Casey is a graduate of Arizona State University, with a bachelor’s degree in political science. He also holds a master’s in political management from George Washington University and received his doctorate in government and politics from the University of Maryland, College Park, where his dissertation focused on the impacts of congressional staff.